Certainties are not easily extracted from Angel Olsen. She does not pluck them from the air like floating candies, nor does she rattle them off in conversation, nor do they routinely bubble up in her songs. If present at all, they're treated with cautious distance; they are meant to be skulked past, or peered at through stiffly arranged fingers, or avoided altogether.
Take, for example, the story behind naming her latest album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness.
"It's kind of your regular, existential...," she begins, then trails off.
"Even if you do communicate with people around you...." Another false start.
Then another: "It's still up to you to...."
There's a pause, then nothing else. That's her final answer.
Such uncertainty is a bit of an awkward problem, seeing as how Olsen, 27, has developed an unparalleled knack for making people drop everything they're doing and listen. During live performances, her voice flutters with uncanny grace between a shout and a warble, and her enormous, feline eyes fixate on some indistinct point at the back of the room. Audiences tend to gape with the sort of unflinching, be-Ritalined focus that's normally reserved for Olympic ski-jumping or fights in a high school cafeteria. When she plays the Great American Music Hall on March 3, expect this dynamic, which one critic dubbed "Angel Olsen Syndrome," to permeate the venue.
Don't, however, expect her songs to ape those of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, with whom she toured as a backup singer for a couple of years before striking out on her own. Nor should you expect them to resemble the brittle, gently strummed chapters of her last record, 2012's Half Way Home. The new album, though shot through with uncertainty, is propulsive and diverse. Burn Your Fire is at once elegant and gritty, as if dipped in expensive honey then hurled into a gravel pit. "Forgiven/Forgotten," the album's first single, is a brief, fuzz-drenched nod to high school punk nostalgia; "Hi-Five," the second, is an echoing, sardonic country ode. Some of the tracks, like "White Fire" and "Enemy," feature Olsen alone with her guitar; but the album tilts, overwhelmingly, toward rock 'n' roll. It's her loudest, strongest effort yet.
Part of the stylistic shift is due to the fact that Olsen, who had formerly played only acoustic guitar, decided this time to plug in and enlist some help. She met her drummer, Josh Jaeger, while working at a café in Chicago; Stewart Bronaugh, a bassist and friend of Jaeger's, was added to the lineup soon thereafter. The other half of it can be traced to producer John Congleton, who's helped artists like St. Vincent, Modest Mouse, and the Walkmen muss their sonic edges a bit.
At first, Olsen was skeptical of working with a bigger-name producer like Congleton. "I didn't want it to be over-polished," she says. "I wanted to be in control of what was happening with my sound, even though it was clear to me that the sound was changing and it would require a different kind of recording."
Congleton, she soon discovered, "was actually really easy to work with and really tactful about his suggestions."
Burn Your Fire's turbulence isn't just textural. There are quite a bit of emotional acrobatics on the album — "multiple disappointments," Olsen says, "that were then taken and exaggerated." Indeed, someone always seems to be on the brink of falling head over heels, or leaving for good, or returning tear-streaked and repentant. Blunt declarations ("I don't know anything/But I love you") give way to veiled pleas ("Won't you open a window sometime?/What's so wrong with the light?"), which in turn give way to thesis statements about the album ("I feel so much at once that I could scream") — and, for that matter, about Olsen herself. All the while, her voice flutters and snaps about like a silk ribbon in a stiff breeze.
So deeply scraped are Burn Your Fire's wounds that it's easy to imagine Olsen's entire oeuvre as a sustained meditation on a single, volatile relationship. This is not the case. "Each song is a different scene representing a different idea of looking at the same problem," she explains. "Feeling that you're connected to something of someone and realizing that you might not be. Even if you had a really amazing interaction, it's possible that both parties walk away thinking that they're understanding each other when they're not."
Two parties, their paths about to diverge, with a crucial question floating between them, unanswered? Sounds familiar. Perhaps, in service of a curious readership, it's not the worst idea to take one last crack at explaining the album name?
"I guess what I mean is that in the end, it's just you," Olsen says. "Maybe you had some really meaningful interactions with people your entire life, but it's just you. All you have is the memory of it. So you might as well make the memory of it worthwhile."